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Microsoft prepares for its 64-bit closeup

The debut of Windows Server 2003 will also mark Microsoft's entry to the high-end world of 64-bit computing. Even though the market for this kind of technology may be a bit immature, experts say it's important that MS let the world know that the company is ready for prime-time computing.

By now, everyone knows that Microsoft will host a server shindig April 24 in San Francisco. It's the coming-out party for Windows Server 2003.

Also making its debut that day is the 64-bit version of SQL Server, called SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition. With this release, Microsoft will enter the arena of 64-bit technology, which has traditionally been dominated by rivals like Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp.

The 64-bit SQL Server is designed to take advantage of Intel's Itanium 2 chip. In conjunction with the release of the software, hardware vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Bull SA are releasing 32-way and 36-way Itanium servers to take advantage of the software. And chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) will be releasing a 64-bit chip that is backward-compatible with 32-bit applications to compete against Itanium, company executives said.

Ultimately, the availability of a 64-bit SQL Server platform will scale on a par with databases that run on 64-bit RISC servers. "It removes the ceiling that once existed on the high end," said Mark Shainman, senior research analyst at Meta Group, based in Stamford, Conn.

Shainman explained that the main difference between 64-bit computing and 32-bit computing is this: 32-bit computing has a limitation of 4 gigabytes of addressable memory. "64-bit has no limitation, so you can have as much memory as you want in a physical server," he said.

Most of the early users of this technology are expected to be those that have specialized workloads, such as high-transaction applications, scientific applications or data warehouses. Or they may be looking to consolidate their platforms.

For the most part, the technology is not expected to move into the enterprise for several years because customers still receive adequate performance from their 32-bit platforms, Shainman said.

"Only the absolute highest-end customers that need to scale up their systems can make use of this," agreed Kurt Windisch, director of program development at Levi, Ray and Shoup Inc., a Springfield, Ill., software manufacturer and integrator. "We don't need that kind of power for our SQL Server implementation."

The adoption of 64-bit computing must also coincide with a time when customers are buying new servers, said Trey Johnson, data warehouse architect at Encore Development Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based integrator. Without a hardware platform to support 64-bit applications, the software cannot be exploited, he said.

By releasing a 64-bit version of SQL Server, Microsoft can overcome what was a psychological barrier with some senior IT executives, said Andrew Brust, president of New York-based Progressive System Consulting Inc.

Lots of enterprises like to standardize on one platform. Though many large enterprises won't need database performance on this level, they may have a supply chain application that does need to scale up to this level, Brust said.

In the past, executives might have ruled out SQL Server, thus losing an opportunity for the platform to gain entry into an enterprise.

"CIOs and CXOs look at platforms in terms of what they can't do," Brust said. "That's how you eliminate things. Having the chops to do the high-end stuff does have an effect on the influence of the platform."


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